What “cage-free” means for egg-laying chickens

365 Cage Free Eggs

Photo by Michael Carian [carianoff] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On the heels of my post yesterday—about whether organic eggs produced on an industrial scale are quite a pastoral as you might think—comes a related story from NPR’s Dan Charles. In it, he takes us inside a brand-new, cage-free egg facility. As he describes,

Inside one of those houses, 18,000 chickens are milling around on the floor. Some are perched on metal bars. A few are madly pecking away at the plastic covers on my shoes….

These chickens aren’t free-range or organic; they don’t go outside. But they do get to roam around inside the house, which makes them cage-free.

Although the animals aren’t confined to insanely small battery cages stacked on top of one another, “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean things are all hunky-dory. Besides never going outdoors,

in cage-free systems, chicken litter builds up on the floor, so chickens scratch around and dust-bathe [a natural chicken behavior] in their own waste….

[In preliminary results from a Michigan State study,] hens in cages were cleaner, but cage-free chickens kept more of their feathers. Cage-free hens may have had more freedom, but twice as many of them died during the year.

Production of cage-free eggs is growing in response to corporate and consumer demand, but buyer beware: the happy-sounding term “cage-free” is so far removed from more humane, environmentally sustainable, and healthful ways to raise egg-laying hens as to be hysterically funny if it weren’t so infuriating. Find the audio and text versions of Charles’s informative story here. For egg options better than simply cage-free, check out yesterday’s post along with the Organic Egg Scorecard from The Cornucopia Institute.

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